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Asbury Bible Commentary – The Rise of the Modern Historical Consciousness
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The Rise of the Modern Historical Consciousness

The Rise of the Modern Historical Consciousness

The beginning of modern biblical criticism. One of Descartes' followers was Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), who became the father of modern biblical criticism. In his Theologico-Political Treatise, written in 1670, Spinoza divided truth into two parts—self-evident knowledge and experiential knowledge. A philosopher through rational reflection can know absolute truth through a logical arrangement of ideas in a coherent fashion. This truth is clear, distinct, and self-evident. On the other hand, experiential knowledge is a lesser form of knowledge since it depends upon the historically conditioning factors of our bodily sense and private experiences.

Spinoza believed religion was for the majority of people, while philosophy was for the educated. He concluded that the Bible is for the masses of people because it uses historical experiences, allegories, legends, and parables to teach piety and morality. However, he taught that the Bible cannot serve as a criterion of truth because it is based on the particularities of history; only philosophy can provide one with absolute truth because it alone uses reason to establish the meaning of the universe. At best, the Bible illustrates these eternal truths of reason.

Spinoza's concern to discover universal truth motivated him to examine the Bible in a critical way. He was offended by its claim to contain special revelations of truth that could not be known by the sheer light of reason alone. Out of his concern to demonstrate clearly and distinctly what is infallible truth, he provided a systematic and objective foundation for biblical criticism. Ironically, the negative attitude toward historical knowledge, which the rationalism of Descartes implied, became a basis for developing the historical-critical method. For Spinoza, even though clear, distinct, and self-evident truths were limited to logical reasoning, this demand for mathematical precision provided a basis for recognizing the need to determine as precisely as possible what the facts of history are.

Lessing's broad ditch between history and faith. The emergence of historical criticism came to be known as the “rise of the modern historical consciousness.” A key person who gave further precise formulation to the theological problem emerging from this dualism of reasoned knowledge and experiential knowledge was Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781). He stated the problem in terms of the contrast between faith and history. The truths of faith provided certainty just as mathematical axioms are certain, but the truths of history are problematic because they are tinged with the question of whether certain events actually happened.

Since the resurrection of Jesus cannot be proved clearly, distinctly, and self-evidently, as can mathematical axioms and other universal truths of reason, the Resurrection supposedly could not serve as the basis of the certainty of faith. For the proof of faith is self-authenticating, but historical facts are established only with varying degrees of probability. One cannot jump from probability to certainty. Lessing said, “Accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason.” He added that to jump from the level of historical probability to the level of certainty of truth about God is impossible to do with intellectual integrity. He called this gap between faith and history an “ugly, broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.”See Lessing's Theological Writings, trans. Henry Chadwick (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1956), 55.

Kierkegaard's Leap of Faith. Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) suggested a way to resolve this gap between faith and history precisely in terms of a leap of faith. Christian faith has its sole condition in the initiative of God. God confronts us through the witness of the Bible and creates the possibility of our believing in the resurrected Jesus as Savior and Lord.

Faith has a historical basis, but the certainty of faith is not based on reason's attempt to prove the facts of divine revelation in history. These facts are acknowledged to be true only because of faith's encounter with the God of the Bible. Any attempt to prove historically the fact of Jesus' divine sonship or his resurrection from the dead is a futile human effort to do what only God can do! Actually, the attempt to prove historically or rationally the existence of God and his revelation in history is works-righteousness. It is a subtle kind of self-salvation by proving for ourselves that God can be believed.

Only by a leap of the will does faith come into being, and this leap can occur only in the moment of God's self-introduction. It is not a blind leap. One does not simply decide to jump. Rather, this leap is a response to God's appeal to us in the moment of his calling us through the witness of Scripture.

Kierkegaard defines faith and truth in the same terms. No mortal can ascertain objective truth. Only God knows the truth of what is and as it actually is. Truth is always subjective for us. That is, “An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth.”Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. David F. Swanson and Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1941), 182. Truth is a choice rather than a mere intellectual insight into the actual nature of things.

For Kierkegaard there are emotional and intellectual dimensions of knowing, but the primary way of knowing is volitional. Likewise, faith is the attitude of trusting in the facts of the biblical revelation even though objectively these facts cannot be shown to be clear, distinct, and self-evident. We believe the Bible to be true precisely because we cannot rationally prove them to be true. If we could prove them to be true, we would not need a relationship with God to establish them as true for us.

This means that faith would no longer be necessary because we would have proved for ourselves the truth of God. So the relationship between faith and history is a paradox. It is not a logical contradiction as such, but a truth that transcends the ability of reason to analyze and explain according to the rules of its own finite logic.Ibid., 504.

Kierkegaard's solution to this problem of faith and history was supplied in large part from his theology of Lutheran pietism, which emphasized the personal and subjective dimensions of faith. But he was a creative “defender” of Christian faith who was to become a powerful resource for new insights for addressing the problem of faith and history as it was further developed in the next century.

The philosophical source of Kierkegaard's creative synthesis of faith and history is derived from the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who was the philosopher of the Enlightenment (see especially Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments and A Concluding Unscientific Postscript). Incidentally, Kant's rationalism was in an important sense a secularizing of the mystical elements of his pietistic upbringing. Both rationalism and pietism stress an individualistic and intuitive knowledge of truth. This compatibility between pietism and rationalism is often overlooked. This is why Tillich says “rationalism is the daughter of mysticism.”Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 315.

Kant's divorce between faith and a knowledge of history. Kant (1724-1804) denied the possibility of knowing anything beyond our five senses. We know only appearances. Our five senses filter out the reality behind appearances. This means that what-is-real-in-itself undergoes a transformation in the process of being received by the senses. This was a total subjectivizing of truth! What really lies outside and beyond our sense impressions is an unknown X.

Kant did believe on the basis of practical reason that there was a larger dimension to reality than our natural sense experience. This larger dimension included the reality of God, the immortal self, and freedom; but these are only ideas and rational inferences. They are logical hunches (an “as if” they are true and real, though we cannot know for sure).

This divorce between faith and knowledge, between appearance and reality was basic to Kierkegaard's idea of the leap of faith. Kant said that objective truth in itself is beyond the pale of human reason to know, and Kierkegaard agreed with him. However, Kierkegaard was not a deist like Kant. Kierkegaard insisted that we could still experience the transcendent God through the leap of faith. This leap was for him a real appropriation (and not a mere hunch or inference) of the reality of God because of God's self-introduction to the believer in the moment of faith.

Kant's theory of knowledge became the presupposition of much of subsequent philosophies of history—that whatever meaning and value lie in the objects of our knowledge are the result of the activity of our own personal mind and not the inherent characteristics of reality itself.See Maurice Mandelbaum, The Problem of Historical Knowledge (New York: Liveright, 1938), 205.

Troeltsch's incorporation of Kant's dualism into the historical-critical method. Kant's influence is especially seen in the philosophy of Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923). His writings in historiography are the classical formulation of the problem of faith and history. All attempted solutions to this problem in contemporary theology begin with his description of the problem.

He believes the rise of the modern historical consciousness now makes it impossible for a thoughtful person to believe in any form of traditional Christianity. Historical criticism has brought about the “conclusive dissolution” of the traditional historical picture of Jesus. The idea that any one event such as the life and death of Jesus could have absolute significance for the whole history of humankind is impossible, he concludes. Historical relativism makes such a view impossible.See Ernst Troeltsch, Die Bedeutung der Geschichtlichkeit Jesu für den Glauben (Tübingen: Mohr, 1911), 1-2, 15.

Troeltsch defined three basic principles of the historical-critical method.See Troeltsch “Über historische und dogmatische Methode in der Theologie,” Gesammelte Schriften (Tübingen: Mohr, 1913), 2:731-38. First, there is the principle of historical criticism itself. This means the critic has to cope with judgments of varying degrees of probability in regard to the events contained in the tradition. That is, all historical knowledge is reduced to the level of finite happenings. History, by Troeltsch's definition, eliminates any act of a transcendent God. Second, there is the principle of analogy. This principle serves as the very basis of criticism regarding the probability of past events. Through the comparison of what is reported in the historical documents to what we observe in our ordinary daily experiences, we judge the probability of events. Troeltsch writes: “On the analogy of events known to us we seek by conjecture and sympathetic understanding to explain and reconstruct the past.”Troeltsch, “Historiography,” Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings (1913), 6:718. This principle of analogy restricts the possibility of an event to what we have observed, known, and experienced.

Third, there is the principle of correlation. This means that there is a naturalistic cause-effect relationship among all events. No changes can occur at any point without preliminary and subsequent alterations in the historical process so that all events stand necessarily in an unending correlative relationship. He writes: “The sole task of history in its specifically theoretical aspect is to explain every movement, process, state, and nexus of things by reference to the web of its causal relations. That is, in a word, the whole function of purely scientific investigation.”Ibid. This effectively eliminates the possibility of God acting in a decisively and purposive manner in a historical revelation.

Troeltsch contends that these self-evident principles affected theology at first only reservedly, then more energetically, then ultimately they completely uprooted the historical claims of traditional theology. He says the historical method, like leaven, bursts the hitherto existing form of theological methods and produces a radical transformation both in theology and church history.See Troeltsch's Gesammelte Schriften, II:730.